Sydney Fox; Thesis Reflection

WOMEN’S WRITING WORKSHOPS IN A COMMUNITY LITERACY CENTER

This reflection explains the process taken to investigate the practices of community literacy, community publishing, and specifically women’s writing workshops. It discusses the components of the thesis and what each means in the broader scope of the thesis. In the end I develop a personal definition of community literacy and reflect on how I can utilize this knowledge in the future.

My thesis began with an interest in literary publishing and how the interaction between community and publishing changes the dynamic of literacy.

  1. I pursued an internship with the Community Literacy Center at CSU because of the Speak Out! Women’s Writing Workshop initiative, which is facilitated at a local jail. I found this interesting and wanted to experience publishing work from incarcerated women with assumingly little to no formal writing training.
  2. I facilitated a ten-week writing workshop with two other facilitators and blogged about my experience.
  3. During that time I also researched the definition of community literacy and began articulating the reasons community literacy is important, as well as what role it plays in the community. This turned into a definition piece about community literacy, which forms the basis of my thesis.
  4. I then began developing a six-week writing workshop curriculum for women, centered on gender. I did not initially intend for it to be gender-based, but I found through a Modern Women Writers class that I was very much interested in how society influences our genders. I wanted to share some of the insights I had gained and decided the best way for me to do that was through exploring gender in my workshop.
  5. Throughout this process I also conducted an interview with a local bookstore/literary journal owner to understand the ways he engages in community literacy.
  6. I also read gender-based books to understand what gender issues people are discussing, as well as what women are interested in/concerned about. I also took some of my inspiration from topics the women were discussing in the workshops we were currently conducting and these became the basis for my curriculum.

This reflection is a synthesis of the above components and will provide insight into one aspect of community literacy and how this aspect provides awareness of gender to the women involved.

When I applied for my internship with the Community Literacy Center, I had not had any experience with community literacy and did not know the goals of a community literacy center. The internship opportunity seemed like a great chance to get out into the community, see how the university and community interacted, as well as to experience different types of literacy and journal work. It also provided me with the opportunity to practice another aspect of publishing and a different way of applying my English major. I already knew that I was passionate about helping people write and be published, and I knew that I wanted to be part of literature that affected community change. I also knew, after a summer of interning with a university press, that I desired more human contact. I was hoping that a community literacy center would be a better place for personal interaction.

My first experience with the range of community literacy was through an interview with the owner of local Matter Bookstore/ Matter Journal, Todd Simmons. I decided to interview Todd because Matter, both the bookstore and the journal, has generated quite the stir within the writing community in Fort Collins. I did not really know at the time what it meant to be a community publisher or what I would ask a community publisher. His answers surprised me, in that his motivations are not to create community through the publication or even to promote the publication. His motivation is to publish work that he feels is of quality and importance without being held back by what sells commercially. He wants to effect social change by talking about what people can do to change the world they live in. If the readers listen, great, if not, at least the seed is planted. At the time, I wondered why his motivation was not strictly community oriented, but instead oriented around general environmental change. As my experience with the community has grown, I have begun to understand that Matter wants to focus simply on interacting with people. Through those interactions reciprocation between publication and community growth emerges. (Please see the transcript under Reference Materials.)

Though Todd gave me my first taste of what community publishing is, another important component of my understanding of community literacy came from reading articles and books that discuss different literacies. An article that really affected me is “Community Literacy,” by Wayne Peck, Linda Flower, and Lorraine Higgins. The article discusses the ways in which students from the university (Carnegie Mellon) and students from local high schools came together at a community literacy center to mutually grow in understanding of each other. The university students came to the Community Literacy Center (CLC) expecting to “teach” the teenagers about literacy, and what they found was that the high school students had something to teach them as well. The CLC’s goal was to improve students’ literacy by having them write about things they would like to change in school. This turned into the students writing letters to the principal or to community leaders informing them why the school’s policies did not work. The university students found that their role was to guide the writing, not to teach writing. Through this type of interaction, a heightened cultural awareness began to form and the students began crossing cultural boundaries and breaking down the barriers of racism. Carnegie Mellon’s CLC brought the community into dialogue and understanding that would not have been created otherwise. (A full annotated bibliography is available underReference Materials.)

I found through further reading, both in books and on individual websites, that many CLCs strive to create a type of community interaction with different population demographics, which considerably altered my original view of community literacy. I assumed the term simply meant teaching literacy to underserved populations. Though this can be true in literacy centers, many community literacy centers foster growth through alternative approaches to literacy. In addition to furthering participants’ education, CLCs bring community members closer together, foster diverse voices, and promote personal success. The centers provide a space where power relationships can be broken down so community members can learn from each other and expand their minds to become more open to “intercultural knowledge” (Peck, et al. 212), which allows them to “change how they practice learning” (Peck, et al. 214). (Peck, et al. 1995, Baird 2001)

I learned the importance of breaking down power relationships and being receptive to change from my personal interactions with the women at the Speak Out! workshops. Each week the two other facilitators and I conducted a writing workshop specifically for women. The CLC uses the term “facilitator” rather than teacher or leader, to break down the barriers and hierarchy of teacher and student. Before the workshop begins, the facilitators are explicitly told that the goal is not to impart their knowledge to the participants, but simply to guide them. The impartial thinking and accessible atmosphere of these workshops really impacted me, as an open mind is necessary for building a community.

Every week we brought in three prompts that filled up about an hour and a half’s time. We decided to focus on themes for each day to allow the women a fuller understanding of each subject. We then would have the women share their work after every prompt and encourage them to give one another constructive feedback. At the end of the workshop we collected writing that they would like us to type up and provide feedback on. It was often through reading their work, both my personal reading and their verbal reading, that the participants revealed the ways workshops where affecting them. The affect of the workshop could be as simple as becoming more willing to share their work, thus providing them with a voice that they did not previously have, or taking a form of poetry and utilizing it beyond the session in which we studied it.

During the workshop I often gained the most insight into our differences. I found that though we started from the same prompt, we created radically different outcomes which stemmed from our various experiences in life. For example, in one workshop we each started a collaborative poem with “Questions we have about _______”; I filled in love while they filled in justice or dignity. However, difference often is taken as a judgment call, insinuating that one is better than the other, and I do not think this is the case. I think it is this perceived difference that fosters prejudiced notions about incarcerated people and these preconceptions need to be eradicated in the community through the journals that are produced at the end of each workshop. The community needs access to materials that reveal alternative understandings of women in jail. As one participant said in a collaborative poem, community members should realize that sometimes decisions are made out of desperation. To understand this is to gain perspective on who the women in the jail are and how we can interact with them.

On a more personal level, working on the thesis and at the internship taught me how to interact with different types of people. Until the workshop, I had only been around people of my own social class. I had not had much interaction with people from different backgrounds, especially outside the academic world, and I think the dynamic changes drastically when people of varying experiences are placed in an intimate setting. In this setting, it was often a struggle to avoid highlighting our differences, whether they were my ready access to higher education, or simply my freedom to actively engage in life. I felt a tension with the women about higher education, even though it appears as though many of them had some type of post-high school training, because it was not through my own means that I was able to attend college. I found it hard to bridge the gap between what I have created for myself and what chance has created for me. As more women were cycling in and out of the workshop and the education levels were fluctuating, I found the issue became less sensitive. There was always the awareness of our differences in the back of my mind, and for that reason, every week I would find a balance between stand-offish and too intimate, in order to avoid seeming condescending.

For example, I once found myself in line with the women as we got off the elevator. I was not sure how to act because I did not belong in their line, but I also did not want to seem as if I was of more importance because I did not have to be in the line. I was spared of making my own decision because Skip, the workshop coordinator for the detention center, asked me to step out of the line. This moved the hierarchal enforcement from me to him. We work hard to blur the line between facilitator and writer, and I felt that by stepping out of the line, I would highlight my difference in a negative way. As I stepped out of line, I was a little embarrassed for making the mistake, but I also felt my role changed to the subordinate role I play everyday in school. I felt like Skip put me back into the role where I am more comfortable.

There were also cultural disconnects between myself and the women. Some of the disconnects were caused by the cultures we had grown up in. I grew up white American, but many of the women were Hispanic, Hawaiian, Native American/ Indian, or Muslim. These differences provided cultural barriers not only between me and them, but between the women themselves. The tensions between their differences were often teased out in the workshops and it seemed to be a place where they could voice their differences and begin to understand why they were different. I do not think that they necessarily solved any problem of difference in the workshop, but it was a positive place to voice their own experiences. For example, we read Jamaica Kincaid’s poem “Girl,” where she uses the word “slut.” We were prepared for reactions to the word, but cultural differences came out when one participant commented that a mother would not call her daughter a slut. However, another participant said that her religious mother often called her a slut growing up. There were tensions between the two women, but other participants and the facilitators were able to translate the problem to discussion by asking questions about how we saw the culture working through the participant’s story, instead of focusing on why a mother would call her daughter a slut.

I also found that they formed a sub-culture within the jail. At first many, though not all, of the women seemed to come from some type of similar culture, but as the workshop progressed it became very obvious that they came from diverse backgrounds. Yet, they all worked together and related well, considering their incarceration had randomly thrown them together. Though they did not choose to live with one another, they formed tight bonds and found points of similarity. They seemed to take the challenge of diversity and create a positive bond out of it. Through observing the women I learned how to create a community of difference. They did not create a perfect community, but a close-knit cooperation from which the general population could learn effective conflict resolution and constructive cultural interaction.

I found that I had a desire to continue the goal of creating communities, and the best way to begin realizing this goal was to produce my own six-week workshop. I constructed my lesson plans in imitation of the lesson plans we had been using for the Speak Out! workshops. I found that this structure worked well to keep the formal atmosphere of the workshop to a minimum. I also feel that they were easy to read and that anyone at the CLC who would like to use the workshop plans in the future could take a day out and easily use it. I wanted to create accessibility in the workshops for both the facilitator and the participants. I created the prompts with the assumption that the participants had little to no background in gender studies. The prompts are not based strongly in theory, but instead center on ideas that most people can relate to, as well as ideas that most people can identify as gendered.

I define gender as the “cultural expectations for people of [a defined] sex” (189 Crawford and Unger), in conjunction with “a system of meanings related to power and status. It operates at individual, interactional, and cultural levels to structure people’s lives” (xvi Crawford and Unger). The prompts (poems, ads, pictures) work to conform to or challenge the cultural expectations of the female gender, while the discussions following the prompts work to deconstruct how “power and status” are related to gender. I do not want to debate whether gender is good or bad or if we should do away with gender identification, but to show the women that gender does not have to be our defining characteristic. We can be people rather than just women. Sometimes the prompts are more generally gender based and sometimes they are specifically woman centered. I did this because gender is not always about being a woman; sometimes gender is about determining how you relate to yourself based on society’s expectations. These workshops are about learning to accept ourselves as we are, as well as taking a focused approach to learning about writing.

I also would like to create a community consisting of myself and the participants. I do not want to be viewed as their teacher or as a superior; I simply want to be their facilitator who has more formal instruction in the subjects we are discussing. The women in the Speak Out! workshop continually surprised me with what they knew about the subjects we were discussing, especially as the workshop attracted different women, and I hope that this will happen again when I facilitate a workshop with the curriculum I have developed. Their knowledge taught me not only about the subjects we were discussing, but also about the diversity of incarcerated women. They taught me that rush judgments greatly diminish who they are, and I hope to go into my next workshop with fewer stereotypes. I found also that the women in Speak Out! were very supportive of one another and I hope in the next workshop that supportiveness will be present, allowing the women to speak more freely about being a woman, in order to learn more about themselves and each other. By encouraging each other to read their work, they create a safe space, which is central to being able to talk about something as personal as gender.

I would like these workshops to spark some interest in the women and get them both excited about writing and about questioning what they define as “female.” I want the women to engage with the material, both by relating to it and by questioning what the material is asserting. However, as the women learn to break down societal barriers a dialogue about effective ways of dealing with male authoritarianism in detention centers must be raised, as they are forced to immediately return to a rigidly hierarchal system after the workshop. The authoritarian structure is inherent to the jail system and the inmates are not the ones who can begin changing the hierarchy.

I also look forward to the insights they can offer me into what being a woman means to them through different experiences, different cultures, and different religions. Each week in Speak Out! the women would bring up something I had not considered before and I appreciated this widening of perspective they provided me in relation to their own personalities, incarcerated women, and my own womanhood. I am looking forward to the change in perspective the women can provide in a workshop based on gender.

Another positive aspect of the workshops is the writing we read outside of the workshop. I hope to possibly collect the journals that I provide the participants with once or twice throughout the workshops and read what they have been writing in order to provide feedback. I have not worked out exactly what form the journals would take, as I would like to be able to simply take out a couple of pages at a time, but binders are not allowed into a detention center. Removable paper would be an advantage because I would also like to provide them with the opportunity to hand in work each week for comments. The work that comes out of the outside writing is emotional and provides perspectives that the participants do not necessarily share during the workshop. For example, one of the most emotional pieces I commented on during Speak Out! was a writer’s ruminations about when she was going to be released. Although it was short and lacked punctuation, I connected to it because it was a concern that someone outside the jail system would not have. The writer talked about how she waited every day for her name to be called to be released. That struck me because the angst of not knowing your fate was something that I connected to in some senses, and something I could not imagine in others. Each week these women highlighted the fact that we are all just humans. What will come out of a workshop based on gender I cannot imagine, but I am sure some of the same perceptions will be highlighted while some radical differences will be also.

As with Speak Out!, I hope to be able to publish a journal of the women’s collected works at the end of the workshop. I would like it to be a celebration of the work they have done, as well as a compilation for the community to experience the insights the women have. However, the facilitators must examine how the public will react to a publication based on gender, as well as how it may affect the women to have very personal writing published publicly. The facilitators have a responsibility to make sure the women understand that there is an excitement surrounding publication and to ensure that they examine the long term effects of publicly pronouncing something. Any writing on gender is at risk for misunderstanding and the women need to examine how their loved ones and community will receive their work. The benefits and detriments of publication based on gender need to be considered closely.

Further, I think that the journal (both Speak Out! and the workshop I have created) of the participants’ work is a great way to begin teaching the community about who the women are and how they interact. As my bond grew with the women and the workshop itself, I began to see that the community publishing was secondary to the community interaction and personal growth opportunities that we were offering to the participants and how much that was affecting me in return.

As I started thinking about community publishing at the commencement of the internship, I assumed that community publishing was the reason for doing the workshops. However, I found that as time progressed, I felt that the publishing was secondary to the workshops themselves. The CLC works to promote social change through its initiatives and I assumed that the publishing of the journal was the social change, but I realized that social change must begin in individuals before the community can change. This social change can be as small as participant in the workshop recognizing when she gives into society’s representations of gender. With the publication, the social change is moving out into the larger community. However, I do not expect radical change, but the same small change that I wish for the participant. If one thought is given to women’s representations in society, then the change has begun.

As we were preparing the publication to go out into the community, I felt it was important to produce a journal people would pick up. People will not commit the energy to deciding if a publication is worth reading if they are not drawn to it. If they are not going to give the journal a second glance, then the words of the writers are not being disseminated and creating any social change. Although this does not change the benefits the writers receive from the workshop, the larger community suffers a loss of the insight the participants can provide them. Further, the CLC then falls short of fulfilling the title community literacy center. Any literacy center can educate the students, but not every literacy center can bring the community members into dialogue with each other.

Along with the importance of getting the writers’ words out into the community, it was important to me to begin taking the steps necessary to ensure a quality, attractive publication. The only way to this end was raising funds, approaching printers, and trying to find the best path to a more professional journal. My inspiration came from the books produced by 826 Valencia because they create publications that are sold in commercial bookstores. These books provide the children of 826 with a tangible object to take to their friends and family. In this same vein, it was important for me to produce something that the women could take home to exhibit the work they did. It was also important for the community to realize that jail is not an idle time. This instigated the drive to see the journal published and disseminated rather than simply viewing the publication as an outcome of the internship.

Through the internship and developing my thesis, I have found that community publishing is different than I expected. It is about creating social change first within individuals and then within the community. By the slightest change of thought or judgment, the work is beginning.

As I went through the internship and process of writing the thesis, I began to develop my own definition of community literacy. To me, community literacy is an alternative space for local discourses to be encouraged and then brought into dialogue with each other. This dialogue allows for mutual understanding and can work toward social change. For my thesis, the change works toward creating awareness for women about gender barriers and how language can break down barriers. I hope the women will feel the desire to write and have their voices heard, and will begin to learn to speak for themselves. The most powerful woman is one who knows how to use her voice- whether spoken or written.

Through the process of my thesis, my focus changed slightly from community publishing to how community publishing can encourage people to speak up, no matter how quietly, though for the purpose of my thesis I focus only on women. I learned that there is a goal behind community publishing and I found the goal that I would like to pursue. I still want to be involved with publishing journals and now I simply have a reason. If I can begin breaking down societal barriers by beginning to erase prejudices, no matter how small, then I have succeeded.